WASHINGTON -- The party of Ronald Reagan is alive and well, and it includes the voices of Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee -- even “Joe the Plumber.”
That was the message out of the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, the annual conservative conference historically held at the Omni Shoreham hotel here.
Gingrich, the retired House speaker and conservative guru, said this year’s CPAC, which ended Saturday, was the largest in three decades, with nearly 9,000 attendees.
"Conservatives certainly have more a lot more energy, creativity and ideas this year opposing the Obama agenda than they sure did supporting the Bush administration," said Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based media strategist. Gerow is on the board of the American Conservative Union, which sponsors CPAC.
Not confined by the Bush political message or machine, conservatives are freer to explore a better way to lead and govern the country, Gerow said.
Meeting the past three days in the shadows of a Democrat-controlled White House and Congress, attendees debated what it means to be a conservative in the era of President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
After losing the 2006 congressional midterm and 2008 presidential elections, they did not lack for debate over how to make conservatism relevant again.
President Obama's near-$800 billion economic stimulus package and newly proposed $3.6 trillion budget prompted plenty of discussion as well.
Internet technology was the big buzz here, as bloggers lined the hotel’s lobbies and halls, reporting and “Twittering” conference details.
"The biggest thing that Republicans should avoid is to become the party of no," said Mark Siegel, a D.C.-based Democratic strategist.
Siegel, who served in the Carter administration and has advised Democratic candidates during their own lean years, offered Republicans unsolicited advice: Instead of always saying “no” to Obama, Pelosi and Reid, a better approach for them is to say, "yes, but ... ."
CPAC’s conservative all-star line-up included Gingrich, former Republican governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas; conservative radio talk-show giant Rush Limbaugh, and Joe Wurzelbacher, the Ohio plumber who became a last-minute slogan of the 2008 race. Romney won a straw poll as best GOP candidate for 2012.
All were crammed into the three days of speeches and break-out strategizing sessions intended to energize and renew the conservative movement.
Missing were last year’s GOP presidential ticket, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Alaska’s Gov. Sarah Palin, and George W. Bush, the titular head of the conference for the past eight years of his presidency.
"With the exception of Sarah Palin, McCain and Bush are now part of our past," said Maroof Ali, a conference attendee from Long Island, N.Y.
Ali, a pre-med student at New York’s Stonybrook University, said Palin would have been “the rock-star” of the conference if she had attended.
"Conservatives have plenty of energy and ideas for the future," he insisted. "In the era of Obama, Pelosi and Reid, we need to be more than the party of ‘no,’ and we also can't be an opposition party -- that would marginalize anything we wanted to achieve."
Gingrich entered the hall packed Friday with nearly 1,000 college Republicans in attendance, shaking their hands along the way as "Eye of the Tiger" provided background music.
He challenged President Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, who described Americans as "essentially a nation of cowards" on racial issues during a recent speech to Justice Department employees.
"We now have more than enough evidence of what this administration thinks of the American people," Gingrich said. "Let me say to Attorney General Holder: I welcome the opportunity to have a dialogue with you about cowardice, anywhere, anytime."
Romney -- who unexpectedly ended his presidential campaign at last year’s CPAC -- told the Tribune-Review that congressional Republicans should coalesce around good ideas and get them out there first: "That shows that we are not the party of ‘no’ but the party of ‘yes, and here is how we do it.’"
Finding a way to break through with that message is the challenge, Romney said.
Huckabee, now a political TV-show host on Fox News Channel, spoke candidly to CPAC’s conservative crowd.
"Of course we should talk about what we did right,” he declared, “but we must be more candid about what we did a lousy job with."
"Thanks to the stimulus package, Republicans have this great moment to distinguish ourselves from the Democratic Party," he added.
Limbaugh closed CPAC last evening by declaring that too many misconceptions exist about who conservatives really are, and he wants to change that. "When we (conservatives) look at a group of people, we see Americans — we don't see groups of people, we don't see victims, we see potentials." he said.
"Conservatism is what it is and will be forever. It is not something you can bend and shape," he said.
CPAC honored Limbaugh, considered by many to be central to the Republican Party’s future,
This month, Obama warned GOP congressional leaders to steer clear of Limbaugh's message. Yet, just as when Republicans were out of power during the Clinton years, Limbaugh's popularity has soared again; his ratings are at an all-time of high of 14 million listeners.
Limbaugh said that conservatives believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
"If you wonder why I have to point that out, it is because we believe all three are under assault," he said.